Making Your College List

The List, and Things to Think About When Creating It

In many ways, the work of figuring out what colleges to apply to is the most important aspect of the entire college process. The objective is to arrive at a list of 6-10 colleges, all of which you would be happy to attend, and some of which you are fairly sure you can get into. Achieving this can take a great deal of research and self-reflection, and advising students through this part of the process is the most important part of the college counselor's work.

Of the 6-10 schools on the typical college list, two or three are "likely" admits, two or three are "possible" admits, and two or three are "reaches." The terms (likely, possible, reach) are obviously pretty elastic, and they have to be, because this is a subjective process at almost every step. The point, even if you aren't concerned about selectivity, is that you will have done a thorough job of exploring the college landscape with the help of the counselor, and that when you're finished you'll have several good choices.

Size of list

Some people feel that if they apply to more schools, they'll have more choices, and that more is better. It isn't, for several reasons. The experience of college counselors across the country is that a well researched, thoughtfully narrowed list enables students to put more time into each application, which yields better results. Even with the advent of the Common Application and other online mechanisms that make it very easy to send the same materials to multiple schools, the contact between the individual student and the specific school still matters, especially at moderately selective private colleges, and especially for students with good, but unspectacular transcripts. These colleges are understandably more interested in students who have demonstrated a specific interest in them. This is not the case at large state schools, but intentionality, initiative, and focus are among the traits that colleges (and employers) prize most. Developing these traits in the college application process yields good results, just as it will in the job application process after college. Some high schools charge families $50 to process every application beyond the tenth. That is not our policy, but it will be our strong advice that students limit their applications to no more than ten schools, appropriately chosen and well researched.


Be cool-headed when it comes to considering any well known, highly selective school. Selectivity does not necessarily equal excellence, and there is no meaningful correlation between where you got your undergraduate degree and your success later in life, however success is measured. (We realize that these may be surprising claims to some, but they are well documented, at and, among other places. What predicts success is what you do, and how well you do it, while you are at whatever college you chose. A given highly selective college can, of course, be the best school for a given student. Within the parameters of our considered advice and counsel, we will support any student's application to any college. If you have a very strong academic record, high test scores, and some demonstrated areas of unusual strength in the arts, science, athletics, entrepreneurship, or community service, you’ll have a good case for a highly selective school. It cannot be overlooked, either, that selective schools are striving to create the most diverse and interesting communities of students that they can, so it is useful to consider what specific demographic variation a school might see in you.


If you have a clear career choice such as physical therapy, architecture, engineering, or equestrian sports, look carefully at the offerings at each school you are considering. (For a small number of students, conservatory training, military academies, seminary, or a craft/trade-specific school may be the right choice. If this is true, we presume you'll have identified this trajectory well before your senior year, and preparations can be made accordingly.) Remember also that a large majority of students eventually major in a subject different than the subject they said they expected to major in when they applied. Moreover, a large percentage of graduates work in fields that are not directly related to their major field of study. Thus, the most important thing about choosing a major in college is to find the classes and professors that inspire you to go to class regularly, think about new things or in new ways, and drive you to activities that result in new knowledge and new skills, even when those activities are not required by a teacher or a syllabus. When in doubt, our advice will always be to choose the college that offers the greatest flexibility and the most congenial environment for exploration.